Star rating – 8/10
This is the fascinating true story of the fall of an aristocratic family who owned the largest stately home in the country – putting even Buckingham Palace to shame – but failed to resist the changing times and the ridiculous rules of male inheritance. It was published in 2007, but chimes perfectly with our new awakened interest in the English aristocracy courtesy of the smash hit (and very watchable) ITV series ‘Downton Abbey’.
In her first book, Catherine Bailey tells the fascinating tale of the Fitzwilliam family, and their family pile with its five miles of corridors, Wentworth House, in South Yorkshire, from the turn of the twentieth century. She uncovers some dark and murky secrets that the family went to great lengths to conceal, such as possible conspiracies to swap a baby at birth to secure a male child to inherit the earldom; to hide away any trace of perceived mental illness in the form of fits; to swindle each other out of their ‘rightful inheritance’; to disown their own for marrying beneath them; and obviously your common or garden affairs, even involving one of the Kennedy clan.
And it is a brilliant read, a page turning, keeping you up at night sort of a tale. But it is much more than the story of the Fitzwilliam family and their ultimate demise. It is a detailed account of the social and economic history of the period. Because the Fitzwilliam’s wealth came directly from the 120 coalmines that were on their estate, and from the miners who worked in these dirty and dangerous pits.
Bailey maintains that the Fitzwilliam family were loved and respected by the miners and their families, opening up the estate to them on a regular basis, and helping them through the hard days of the General Strike and coal strikes. She may be right – they may have been conscientious and paternal landowners. But her story brings the class conflict into sharp relief, and ultimately, it was the privatisation of the coal mines, not the internal family squabbles, that meant the end of the Fitzwilliam riches.
The details about the poverty and hardships of the miners are very well related, and the contrast between their lives and those of their lords and masters is brought into sharp relief by the visit of King George V. While he and the Queen were staying at Wentworth, there was a terrible tragedy in one of the Wentworth mines, where many miners and people who tried to rescue them were killed. But the royal couple soldiered on and tried not to let it spoil their visit, and didn’t even refer to the tragedy in the thank you letters they wrote to their hosts.
Wentworth House is still there today – home of an elderly recluse and not open to the public. How I would love to peek inside and imagine the goings on of yesteryear. I’ll just have to wait for the next series of Downton Abbey instead...